I have represented veterans from every generation from before WWII all the way to the present generation of veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although much has changed in the military and society since WWII, some things remain the same. No matter the era, veterans make the same common mistake when separating from the service.
The typical scenario involves a young male veteran in his twenties who is anxious to get out of the service and go home. Although he may have suffered an injury or some health concern during active duty, his youthful vigor is enough to compensate for any minor discomfort. As a result, he makes no complaints at his separation exam. In typical youthful fashion, he believes that no matter the problem, it will go away. Like most young men, it is difficult to foresee ever being disabled.
After leaving the service the veteran tries to go on with his life. He may have a family to support and the idea of making repeated visits to a doctor’s office doesn’t even cross his mind. He still feels invincible and cannot foresee the problem lasting long term.
Years go by and as he ages his old injury from the service begins to give him problems. It may be 20 or 30 years since active duty and now the effects of age begin to become manifest. The decline associated with aging combines with the progressively worsening injury/illness from service and now our hypothetical veteran–who is now middle-aged–begins to experience a bona fide disability.
So now he finally turns to the VA for help. He files a claim for compensation. He anticipates clear sailing. After all, he served and the VA is there to help veterans, right? He’s telling the truth and he believes that VA will grant his claim for VA disability compensation.
A rude awakening awaits our veteran when he receives a decision from the VA. Claim denied! He’s outraged. He knows the injury happened during service. Why won’t the VA believe him?
He reads the decision and the VA cites as justification for its denial the fact that the separation exam was “normal.” The VA further states that there was no evidence of any problems for 20 plus years following service. As such, the VA reasons that there is no connection between the present disability and active duty.
Frustrated, the veteran begins to recall the events of his life at the time of separation and the early years following service. He now remembers how his desire to avoid being held over for a medical problem caused him to keep his mouth shut about the in-service injury. He’s now angry with himself for being so short-sighted at the time of discharge. But now it’s seemingly too late. The VA has painted him as a liar.
Veterans disability attorneys who have been in practice for any length of time have heard variations of this theme countless times. The mindset of young men discharging from the service has not changed much in the last 75 years. In fact, a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) found that men are 80 percent less likely than women to regularly use healthcare services. Additional research suggests that half of all men between the ages of 18 and 50 don’t even have a regular exposure to healthcare services. Moreover, according to Dr. Will Courtenay, a lecturer at Harvard Medical School, who was cited in an ABC News report http://abcnews.go.com/Health/story?id=116898 , men are less likely to feel vulnerable to disease or injury.
As an explanation for this disparity, researchers have referred to the so-called “Boy Code.” http://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/columncc/cc061113.html This code involves the code of silence, which means that boys should not show vulnerability. Having a disability implies weakness–making one vulnerable.
There is a certain machismo that characterizes the male psyche. Psychologists have studied it and whether you like it or not, it’s a fact. And in my professional opinion as a veterans disability attorney, it helps to explain why so many young male veterans refuse to admit to any nagging medical problems during service and at their separation exam.
The failure to report their injury or health problem during service or at separation can often be fatal to a claim for disability compensation filed years later. Moreover, the failure to continue to treat for the problem in the years after service can also negatively impact a veteran’s claim. For instance, for chronic disabilities, continuity of symptomatology is a method of establishing service connection . Without a continuous chain of visits to the doctor after service, VA will be skeptical of any claim of continuous symptoms subsequent to service.
Accordingly, the two biggest mistakes a transitioning veteran can make are the failure to report his medical problem at separation and the failure to seek medical treatment for the problem after service. I note Ryan Gallucci’s comments on the Task & Purpose blog wherein he commented on Eric Greitens piece entitled “7 Things I’d Like to Tell Every Young Veteran.” I agree that filing for disability compensation does not mean you are “disabled.” I also agree with Eric Greiten’s self-reliant philosophy and his concern for guarding against an entitlement mentality. And I’m not necessarily advocating filing claims for medical issues that are not disabling problems.
But planning for the possible need for disability compensation in the future is advisable from a legal perspective. As a lawyer who represents disabled veterans in VA appeals, I would counsel a person to plan for a future problem–and hope it never materializes In the same way that writing a will does not mean death is imminent, documenting health problems that may have arisen due to military service is a wise move, and failing to do it is often one of the biggest reasons why VA denies compensation claims.